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The girl kept half-turning in the back seat to stare out the rear window of the cab, as though she were being chased across Buffalo to the hospital. It made Pete Sawicki as nervous as she was. He kept flicking his eyes to the rearview mirror, but all the way to the hospital he saw trucks, people driving station wagons to the supermarket, kids throwing baseballs beside empty streets—nothing at all that was suspicious except her. He pulled up to the emergency room entrance and got out of his cab to open her door.
She had a pretty face. She was very young, maybe even jailbait, with long light brown hair, eyes that looked gray-green, full lips that seemed to pout as she concentrated on getting out of the back seat of the cab. Pete held his hand out to help her, but she deflected his attention with a look that went past him as though he were gone already. Usually somebody who wanted a cab ride to the hospital emergency room wanted a hand.
She stood and once again her belly showed, stood out from her body under the loose shirt. It was none of his business, but Pete couldn’t help seeing the pregnancy as tragic in somebody her age. How could it not be?
"How much?" she said, her hand already moving into her purse.
She frowned. "It can’t be."
He pretended to look inside at the meter, and chuckled to himself. "You’re right. It’s twelve." He took the fifteen dollars she handed him. "Thanks. And thanks for noticing that." He stepped around the cab to his door, watched her walking to the emergency room, and waited until he saw the glass doors slide open to admit her and then close. He got back into the cab, reached into his pocket, took out a ten-dollar bill to pay for the rest of her fare, and put it into the cashbox. Then he drove out the circular drive. He supposed he would head out to the airport and take a place in the line there. It was still early in the day and flights from the west would start coming in soon.
AT THE RECEPTION DESK the woman in the uniform told the girl to sit and wait, but the triage nurse came out only a couple of minutes later and brought her into an office. The nurse said, "If you’ve got to be in the emergency room, you picked a good time. Beginning in the late afternoon, things get pretty hectic." The girl recited the symptoms as well as she could remember them, and then she had to answer the nurse’s questions. Some were the obvious ones anyone would ask a pregnant woman, and some seemed to be all-purpose questions for emergency rooms. If you answered yes to any of them, you would belong in a hospital.
When the nurse started to stand, the girl said abruptly, "Do you happen to know a woman named Jane Whitefield?"
"I’m not sure. I may have heard the name. Why?"
"Oh, it’s not important. Somebody I know told me if I was in this hospital I should say hello for her."
"It’s a big hospital. I’m going to have you wait in an examining room. A doctor will be in to see you shortly."
The girl sat on the narrow bed in the small white room to wait for the doctor. She felt stupid, humiliated. Why would anybody ask her to say hello to somebody in an emergency room? Her mistake made her more nervous. She looked at the complicated telephone mounted on the wall. It made no sound, but she could see colored lights along the top, some steady and others blinking—green, red, and yellow. She stood and looked at it more closely. Maybe she could find the right button to make an announcement over the hospital’s public-address system. She had a professional-sounding telephone voice. If she could find the right button, she could say, "Jane Whitefield, please report to the emergency room. Jane Whitefield, there is a patient to see you in the emergency room." It would be a huge risk, because they might throw her out or even have her arrested, but she had to do something.
The girl stepped closer and looked for labels on the buttons, then heard a woman’s voice talking, growing louder as the woman came up the hall. The girl turned away from the phone and heard the swish of fabric as the woman stepped into the room. The woman was brown-skinned, about forty years old, and seemed to be from the Middle East or Asia. She wore a starched white coat with a gold name tag. "Christine?"
"I’m Dr. Depredha. Are you in pain? Are you having cramps now?"
"Once in a while they come back."
"I think it stopped."
Dr. Depredha touched Christine’s forehead, then took her stethoscope and pressed it against Christine’s neck for a few seconds. "All right. Let’s get you undressed and I’ll give you a brief exam, so we’ll know more." She opened a drawer, took out a package, and tore it open. Christine could see it was a gown. "You can put this on, and I’ll be back in a minute." She started out, pulling the door after her.
"Do you know a woman named Jane Whitefield?"
"Sounds familiar. Is she a doctor?"
"I don’t know. Someone I know said I might run into her here."
One of Dr. Depredha’s perfect curved eyebrows gave an eloquent upward twitch that conveyed sympathy, apology, and yet, a businesslike urgency. "I haven’t been here long. I’ll be back." She went out and closed the door.
Christine’s heart was beating faster. She was feeling more and more panicky. Sweat dampened her shirt and nausea was coming on. She had come so far, and she was so frightened. Now that she was here, the place seemed to be a lot of blank, unknowing faces and closed doors, and she had no idea how long she would be safe here. She fought the impulse to step out the door and run, and began to undress. This was the plan she had chosen. She had to carry it through and give it a chance to work. If she couldn’t find Jane Whitefield, at least maybe she could stay here long enough to rest.
DR. DEPREDHA HURRIED OUT to the reception area and spotted the big security officer near the doors to the parking lot. As she stepped toward him she saw his head turn, his dark, intelligent eyes see her, and his black face smile down at her. "Mr. Mathews."
"Dr. Depredha. What can I do for you?" For an instant she felt the warm, reassuring attention that he always brought with him. He was about six feet seven and weighed, by her estimate, two hundred and eighty pounds, but his manner made him seem like a doting uncle.
She had to speak quickly and just above a whisper. "I just got a patient, a pregnant female who listed her age as twenty. She’s showing signs of extreme anxiety. She’s afraid. Genuinely frightened."
"Do you need help with her?"
"Not with her. She’s perfectly docile. But I have a feeling about this. She acts as though she were being chased. Do you understand?"
He nodded. "What does she look like?"
"Caucasian, brown hair, light eyes. Looks younger than twenty. Her name is Christine. The triage nurse noted that she arrived alone in a taxi."
"I saw her. All right, Doctor," said Mr. Mathews. "I’ll begin watching for anyone who might be looking for her."
"Thank you, Mr. Mathews." She turned and hurried back through the automatic doors that led to the examining rooms.
Officer Stanley Mathews stepped to the outer doors of the emergency room and looked out. He wasn’t quite sure what he was looking for—an angry parent or brother, an abusive boyfriend, or even some female rival with a gun in her purse. Dr. Depredha wasn’t some flighty, overprotected woman who imagined danger. Before she had come to this country she had been in a couple of wars, doing battlefield patch-up jobs while incoming mortar rounds thumped inside the perimeter near enough to bounce the instruments on the table. He’d seen a bit of that sort of thing himself. If she felt uneasy, he felt uneasy. He pushed open the double doors with both hands and stepped outside to see who might have pulled into the parking lot since he’d last looked. Some people had seen enough terror and misery in their lives so they seemed to develop a sense of when trouble was coming. They could feel it.
JANE MCKINNON SURVEYED the room from the doorway. Tonight the hospital cafeteria had been not only decorated but disguised, the windows covered with long drapes and the ceiling hung with clusters of hundreds of white Japanese lanterns of different sizes. The benefit seemed to be going smoothly. People were moving away from the hors d’oeuvre tables and circulating instead of knotting up near the food and drink. The conversation was loud and continuous. The band had arrived, set up, and done sound checks during the late afternoon, so that when the music started it would be tolerable. As Jane moved in among the guests, her tall, erect shape and the light blue evening dress that set off the dark skin and black hair she had inherited from her father made people turn to watch her for a moment. The intense blue eyes she’d inherited from her mother acknowledged them and moved on.
A man’s voice, too close, coming from above her head. Jane McKinnon pivoted to face him, her eyes taking in hands-face-body in the first fraction of a second. It was only Gary Wanamaker, the hospital’s director of development. The muscles in her arms and back relaxed, and she managed a smile. Her knees straightened from the preparatory flex that the long evening dress had hidden from view. For some reason she hadn’t recognized the voice. She was jumpy tonight, abnormally alert.
Copyright © 2009 by Thomas Perry
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